Culture Magazine

Where is the Never Ending (medieval) Text? [#DH]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I checked in at today and found another article by medievalist Stephen Nichols. I've not finished it, but wanted to blog a passage or two anyhow.
Stephen G. Nichols, Dynamic Reading of Medieval Manuscripts, Florilegium, vol. 32 (2015): 19-57 DOI: 10.3138/ or.32.002 download at
Here's the abstract:
Abstract: Digital manuscript and text representation provides such a wealth of information that it is now possible to see the incessant versioning of works like the Roman de la Rose. Using Rose manuscripts of the Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon MS 763 and BM de Dijon MS 525 as examples and drawing on Aristotelian concepts such as energeia, dynamis, and entelecheia, the copiously illustrated article demionstrates how pluripotent circulation allows for “dynamic reading” of such manuscript texts, which takes into consideration the interplay between image, text, and the context of other texts transmitted in the same manuscript.
What caught my attention was his statement about the unexpected impact of digital technology. It made it possible, for the first time, to examine a number of different codices of the same title and to compare them. And THAT led to a sea-change in understanding of what a text was. The normative concept of the Urtext as the author's original version was in trouble. What happens to the so-called critical edition? Thus (p. 22):
at the critical edition represents a construct based on selected evidence is neither exceptional nor particularly shocking. More problematic is the fact that expediency decrees that manuscript mass be accorded short shrift. Not all manuscripts are equal in this scenario. Indeed, the purpose of manuscript selection—the choice by the editor of a small number of manuscripts deemed reliable — lay precisely in minimizing the number of manuscripts. e more versions an editor could eliminate as defective or uninteresting, the greater the probability that one had located the few copies closest to an original or early version of a work. e select copies could then be closely scrutinized for variant readings. And ‘variant’ meant precisely that: readings of lines or passages dif- fering from what the editor determined to be the normative text. It was in reac- tion to such a restrictive treatment of manuscript variation that New Philology emerged. Initially, we argued that manuscript copies bore witness to a dialectical process of transmission where individual versions might have the same historical authority as that represented by the critical edition.
And so (pp. 24-25):
Perhaps the most startling question posed by the specular confrontation of manuscripts concerns the status of textuality itself. With unerring perspicuity, Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet pinpoints the issue by asking the simple, but trenchant question: “what, exactly, is ‘a text’ in the Middle Ages, and how do we locate it in a manuscript culture where each codex is unique? [. . .] More radically still,” she continues, “we might legitimately ask just where we’re supposed to nd the text in the manuscript. How does it come to instantiate itself materially as object? And how is its literary identity realized?”
If such questions seem disorienting, it is because they underline how much print editions of medieval works have shaped our expectations. We have grown accustomed to nding the ‘text’ of a medieval work before our eyes whenever we open an edition. In the critical edition, the text is a given; that is why the work is called ‘textual scholarship.’ The editor works hard to establish a text on the basis of painstaking study of the manuscripts that he or she determines to be authoritative. e point, of course, is to circumscribe or close the text to from continuing to generate additions or variants. As we know, that is a modern practice grounded in concepts of scientifc text editing.
But as Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet observes, the very concept of a definitive text, a text incapable of generating new versions, is an illusion propagated by its own methodology. Authentic medieval texts, she observes, are never closed, nor, I would add, would their mode of transmission allow them to remain static. And, as a corollary, she observes: “Where are the boundaries?” How do we “identify the borders of a text”? She means that the manuscript folio has a very different ecology from the page of a printed edition. Textual space on a folio is not exclusive, but shared with other systems of representation, or — why not? — other kinds of ‘texts.’ ese include rubrics, miniature paintings, decorated or historiated initials, bas-de-page images, marginal glosses, decorative programmes, and so on. In other words, the medieval manuscript page is not simply complex but, above all, an inter-artistic space navigated by visual cues.
We are far from the world of "distant reading" a large corpus of texts and thereby beginning to see patterns in literary history that had been but dimly envisioned before. But the change is equally profound. For example (26-27):
To understand the astonishing virtuosity and variety we nd in manuscript versions of the ‘same’ work — such as the Roman de la Rose, for example, for which we have some 250 extant manu- scripts produced between the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century — we need to identify imminent factors responsible for generating multiple versions of a given work throughout the period. Here again, digital manuscript study offers reasons to move beyond conventional explanations.
Whereas increased manuscript production might intuitively be explained by such external causes as rising literacy among the merchant and artisan classes and the growth in the number of booksellers, the great variation we see in manuscripts, even those contemporaneous with one another, suggests the possibility of inherent forces of variation at work. Put another way, whereas the increase in literacy and leisure certainly contributed to the growing market for manuscripts to which Parisian booksellers responded, the e cient cause generating multiple manuscripts of a given work lay in the nature of the manuscript matrix itself.
It is not by chance that versions of a given work vary. Literary prestige derived in part from a work’s ability to renew itself from generation to generation by a dynamic process of differential repetition.
And so it goes. And we bring in Artistotle (p. 30): "But whereas we might think of striving for perfection as linear and directed, Aristotle sees it as continuous and open-ended." Is Nichols going to be arguing, then, that the production of version after version is a "striving for perfection" the extends through a population of scribes and readers? I suppose that's what I'll find out as I continue reading.
Thus, p. 32: "In other words, manuscripts are, by their very nature as eidos, ergon, and energeia, predisposed towards actualizing the works they convey not as invariant but as versions in an ever-evolving process of representation.  Against those who would see manuscript copies as regressions from an authoritative original to ever fainter avatars of that primal moment, we must recall Aristotle’s notion of form as atemporal actuality. "
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Here's an earlier post about Nichols: Mutable stability in the transmission of medieval texts. And here's a post about the three texts of Hamlet that's relevant: Journey into Shakespeare, a tedious adventure – Will the real Hamlet stand up?

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